Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Bleurgh

Waaaah! I've spent the latter half of today shivering in bed, trying to ignore a rotten headache. This makes me sad, and also makes the prospect of late night stand-up slots and early morning train journeys from Manchester to Glasgow that little bit less appealing.

But then, maybe that's part of what this pilgrimage is going to be about. Do I only want to perform when it's easy and arranged for me? Or is there something about it that transcends all that? It certainly seems like there are plenty of musicians, stand-ups and poets out there who can't possibly be in it for the dollar, what with their diligent giggery at unpaid slots up and down the country. The lovely chap who drove me to my first stand-up open mic in Nottingham told me that the guy he lift-shares with has done about 120 unpaid open slots in the last year. 120! That's 3 unpaid gigs a week! Most of them would have been about 5 minutes long, and to rack up that many, you'd have to be travelling some distance to find them. And this is fitting them in around a full-time job! He couldn't be with us that evening because he was 'picking up a delivery of bolts from Wrexham'.

Over the next few weeks, the format of this blog is going to shift a little towards a kind of 'what I did on my holidays' affair where I talk about the open mic gig I did the night before, and probably embed veiled appeals for help as my mental state deteriorates. I'll chat about the people I've met and the performances I've seen, and my thoughts on this whole business of getting up in front of a room full of strangers and saying 'look at me'. I've pencilled in a cheeky epiph for around May 15th, so the busy/impatient amongst you might want to check the blog some time just after then, to find out what it all meant. The rest of you will get to see my (hopefully increasingly competent) photos of the evening and a bit of commentary. Naturally, the performance poet interviews will continue as usual. Hooray!

Monday, 30 March 2009

But Not *All* Of Us, All At The Same Time, Surely?

Today, the guy behind the counter in my local Tesco, a slightly podgy Indian chap with a big boil on the side of his nose, caught sight of one of my badges.

He frowned. 'Why you say... We can't all be astronauts?' He pointed at the big blue badge, with the title of my soon-to-be-actually-published-and-real-book on it. His face broke into a beaming smile. 'Because we can! We can!'

'Well... not all simultaneously,' I said.

'Yes we can!' the man retorted, nodding with rare vigor. 'Of course we can!'

I picked up the bag containing my microwavable lasagne. 'Not everyone in the world at once.'

The man behind the till threw his head back and laughed.

For some reason, the encounter really cheered me up. All the practical limitations in the world seemed a little flimsy in the light of that laugh. I mean, sure, it might be simply that he's an imbecile, who could spend many hours in happy enthrallment at a hen hidden beneath a dishcloth, but still. My life needs more gentle optimism and less 'yeah but's.

(cartoon courtesy of Moe)

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Nexus - The Jupiter Incident

The first game I ever worked on was an RTS space sim called Nexus - The Jupiter Incident. It was developed by a Hungarian company called Mithis, who wrote a script, then had it translated into English by a native Hungarian speaker. This was where I came in. It was my job to take the raw script (which looked like it had been put through Babelfish), and create a workable English script that would then be recorded by voice actors in the studio.

I knew that I had some restrictions, in that the cut-scenes had already been created, so whatever I wrote had to match the timing of the original Hungarian. In addition, the script was over 100,000 words long, I often had to guess the context (I had the latest build of the game but I wasn't good enough to get past the first level), and I had less than two weeks to finish it.



In retrospect, though I gave it my best shot, I don't think I did a very good job. A lot of the time, I just fixed up incorrect grammar and weird turns of phrase ('As we say on Earth, captain - weeds don't spoil! Ha ha ha!') then moved onto the next sentence. Now, with the benefit of experience and a greater confidence in my writing abilities, I would assert my own voice more, and work to make each character distinct. I stood my ground on one or two issues, completely changing the dialogue of the 'Raptors', for example (genetically-enhanced dinosaur creatures wired into their ships), from clichéd highfalutin 'I shall crush you like an insect, meagre Earthling!' stuff to a clipped pidgin dialect, reasoning that, since they had been bred from birth to fly ships, and knew little else, their language would be abrupt and brutish, suited for quick communication during a battle.



I do like the bit of dialogue at the start of this clip, however, just because I can remember the fun we had recording it in the studio:



In the end, because I was the only person who knew the English script, I got employed as a consultant director for the voice recordings. I got to help with the casting, then help direct the voice actors as they recorded their parts, sitting there with a laptop in front of me, tweaking bits of dialogue when an actor's delivery revealed that my original version was a bit crap. It taught me a lot about voice acting and directing (as you might expect), and made me even more appreciative of games with really good writing and performances. I remember one guy listening to a rejected take and remarking: 'He sounds like he's selling biscuits.' For me, that sums up a lot of what's wrong with bad video game dialogue - all too often, companies hire 'voiceover artists' rather than actors, and you end up with something that sounds like the instructional safety video on a aeroplane.

I'll probably put up a post in a few days with some examples of what I consider to be superb and awful dialogue in video games. I've got some strong opinions on the subject, but at the same time I appreciate how difficult it can be to make something rich and filmic when you're on a tight budget and working in a medium that precious few actors and writers understand, let alone feel passionate about. I think I'm also starting to realise that, in my heart of hearts, I want to be head scriptwriter on a video game. I want to be involved right from the beginning of the design process, and get to colloborate with a skilled team on some fantastical new world. I wonder if my fiction writing has suffered because, deep down, I've been trying to recreate peak experiences from video games, and prose just doesn't have the juice (nor interactivity) to do that. Do you remember how it felt when you first escaped Midgar? Do you remember the rush?

Yeah. Books can't do that.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Open Mic Project - April Dates

So, in case you don't know, I'm kicking off a pilgrimage to open mic nights big and small all over the country (and a few beyond). I've got a tentative itinerary, although given that these events are mostly run by diligent amateurs, I've got to expect that I may turn up in a couple of places only to find a burnt out husk and crisp packets scuttering in the tainted breeze. Although to be fair I've been let down more times by ostensible 'professionals' than I have by enthusiastic volunteers.

It all starts on April 2nd. My head's thumping from the logistics of it, but I think that's probably because, mentally, I'm attempting to do the entire journey in my mind, which is silly. But look - if you are about in any of these places and would like to come and say hello, please visit and say 'hello'. I will be so grateful for your kindness I will probably clutch at you, weeping with reverence. I'll put up May dates a little closer to the time. Also, hey if you live in any of these places and could offer me a dry spot to crash on for the night, I will love you and rhapsodise about you to everyone I meet. Also, if there's anyone in London who wants to come with me to the 'Comedy Virgins' gig on the 13th, that'd be fab - I think they've got some bizarrely draconian stipulation where if you don't turn up with at least one friend you're barred from performing. Hmm.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

The Performance Poet Interviews - #6: Joel Stickley

Since you asked, Cone O' Tragedy's most popular feature is my weekly interviews with UK performance poets. We've heard from Dockers MC, Polarbear, Nathan Filer, Yanny Mac and Nathan Jones. This week, it's the turn of Joel Stickley.



How did you get into performance poetry?

I saw Luke Wright perform a few poems at a cabaret night when we were both at university. Immediately seeing that perfomance poetry was a formulaic and creatively bankrupt art form, I wrote a parody of him hilariously entitled 'Luke's Right.' When he heard it, he was so angry that he offered me a gig at a night that he and Ross were putting on. Rather than trying to make a two-minute poem fill a ten minute set, I wrote some more material. One thing led to another and, three months later, I found myself standing in the rain at the Edinburgh Fringe, handing out flyers for a perfomance poetry show. That was seven years ago.

I see this as a kind of cautionary tale.

How would you describe your work?

I'd pretend to be thinking about it for a while, cock my head to one side and make a kind of humming sound before asking the interviewer how he would describe my work. Then I'd agree with whatever he said.

Do you think there's a difference between 'page' and 'performance' poetry? If so, what?

Yes, definitely. I think performance poetry is closer to stand-up or music than it is to page poetry. If there's a performance poem that works on the page, it's probably only by chance, like having a computer that also works as a door-stop.

Why should someone come to a performance poetry gig?

Well, there are two possible reasons. The first is that they should come to a perfomace poetry gig because they've been to one before and know that they'll like it. The second is that they haven't ever been to one before and have no idea what to expect. The second reason's better than the first, but you can only use it once.

What do you think your best poem is, and why?

It really would depend when you asked me. I tend to like ones I've written more recently, whereas old ones I can see all the flaws in and am bored of. Given that, the only real measure I have of one of my poems is how long it manages to stay in circulation before I get too embarassed to perform it again. On that metric, the winner is probably one called 'The Rhyming Poem', which I've been wheeling out for a few years now.

But if you're asking for my current favourite, I'd have to say my poem about the evolution of fish, 'Playing God', which is only a few weeks old. I wrote it for the Athens Children's Book Fair and illustrated it myself in brown felt tip.



If you could nick one other person's poem and claim it as your own, which poem would it be, and why?

I'd love to be able to pick something that made me sound well-read and intellectual, like saying that I'd nick something off John Donne or Pablo Neruda, but let's be honest - I'd sound like a right ninny reciting 'To His Coy Mistress'. If I was going to try and pass something off as my own, it'd probably have to be something written by one of my fellow Aisle16ers. Boring, I know, but plaigarism is all about being methodical.

What typifies bad performance poetry to you?

Ambition.

Tell us about a particularly memorable reaction you've had to your work.

At Port Eliot Lit Fest a few years ago, I did a set which caused one member of the audience great offence. The first poem I did was called 'My Passport Photo Makes Me Look Like A Suicide Bomber'. She didn't have a problem with that one. The second poem was called 'The Tale Of Britain's First Paedophile Prime Minister'. She laughed along with everyone else. Then I did a poem called 'The Rise And Fall Of Lightning Jim', about a snail who throws away a promising career in snail racing after a doping scandal involving salt. It's a poem I tend to do when I go into primary schools. She glared at me throughout, then turned to her friend and, with barely concealed outrage, said, 'I don't think that's very funny, actually. My uncle was an alcoholic.'

I read the moral of the story as being this: you never know who's going to be offended by what, so you might as well tell jokes about terrorism and child abuse.

You say 'ambition' typifies bad performance poetry for you. I have no idea whether this is one of your clever meta-answers or an utterly straight response, and if either is the case I still wouldn't quite be sure what you meant. Would you mind clarifying?

I thought about how to answer that question for a while, and I actually think that's my real, considered and unflippant answer. Most of the really cringe-worthy poets I've seen had one thing in common - they took what they were doing incredibly seriously and thought that poetry was the most important thing in the world, a powerful tool to affect real change in society. And they're wrong. Poetry isn't the answer to anything - it's just an entertaining way to ask the questions. Sometimes not even that. Sometimes it's just a game you play with words. And you know what? That's fine. That's what poetry's for. Trying to use poetry to correct all society's ills is like trying to travel from London to Manchester on a space-hopper. By all means play with it, mess around and enjoy yourself, but if the journey's that important to you, buy a fucking train ticket.

You say your starting point as a performance poet was parody - I wonder if you feel that was the beginning of a long creative arc that finally culminated in Who Writes This Crap?, a book and show entirely fashioned from lampooning the form and content of different everyday texts. I say, 'I wonder if you feel' - what I mean is 'I personally believe and want you to agree'.



It's certainly been a common thread through the whole time I've been writing and performing. I think I just like writing things in character, inhabiting other people's voices, and parody is one of the most fun ways to do that. And by parody, I mean the whole range of ways to imitate: satire, pastiche, homage, parody, tribute. Taking the piss. Stepping into someone else's shoes. Taking a piss in someone else's shoes. It's all good.

With regards to poetry, you seem to have wound in the performing duties a bit. What are your plans? Are you hoping to produce and perform lots of new poems, or are you searching for pastures new? Or what?

I don't gig compulsively. I never have, really. I've always enjoyed impromptu, one-off shows more than huge, unwieldy tours. Luke and I did a very short tour of the Who Writes This Crap show earlier this year and it was an absolute joy. A handful of dates, then a bit of time at home to write. Once I rack up fifty or so performances of the same material, I start to get really sick of it. So the thing is to keep working on new projects. Luke and I are collaborating on a script for an animated film at the moment, as well as tentatively trying to work WWTC into a radio-friendly format. I've been doing a lot of work in schools, getting kids to write poetry. I teach on a creative writing course for adult learners. I write when I have the time. It's all great fun. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

An Inappropriate Time For Ham

After yesterday's second We Can't All Be Astronauts comic by Line And A Dot, I just happened to be browsing through some of (MS Paint Adventures creator) Andrew Hussie's other web comics, when I stumbled across a couple of awesome, deceptively simple single-premise series that made me chortle like the mentally subnormal.

'Inappropriate Time For Ham' is exactly what it sounds like - a series of cartoon depictions of times when ham is inappropriate.



And my personal favourite (as if you care, you glib bastards):


The second series is called 'A Steep Price For Pie', and... well, you'll get the idea.






You can see more here. I suppose one of the reasons I like these is that I can imagine the conversation that spawned them. You know, one of those times where you're chatting in the bar with your mates, and you hit upon a rich comedy seam, and everybody starts riffing off it, and you're all pissing yourselves laughing. I just get the impression he was sniggering just making these up. And once you've got the premise, you can really go to town. It's like when you come up with a great conceit for a list poem, and you spend the next couple of hours just brainstorming every single iteration of the idea: 'Right, so in this poem I've made a crazy wish, and my mouth is now an anus and my anus is now a gun? What would be the hilarious consequences of that?' I'm now busily imagining comics in which not everyone gets to be an astronaut. I daresay I'll put my infantile drawing abilities into practice sooner or later, and commit some to this here blog. Just you wait.

Monday, 23 March 2009

We Can't All Be Astronauts - The Official Comic #2

Hooray! Line And A Dot has released a second nose-tingling installment of We Can't All Be Astronauts, the graphic novel adaptation (the text version of which is TOTALLY available to pre-order on Amazon!). Click on the pic below for a bigger image, and click here for part one.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Ninja Clowns

I'm a broken man. In my infinite naivety, I believed that any game called Ninja Clowns would have to represent some high watermark of human endeavour. Because, you know - they're ninja fucking clowns, dude.

Turns out that the obscure 1991 side-scrolling beat 'em up Ninja Clowns is literally one of the worst games ever made. Imagine reaching into your trouser pocket, only to discover that what you thought was a yummy chocolate bar is actually a festering bum egg striated with tapeworms. That's how you'd feel if you'd paid 10p for the chance to play this abomination.


What these pictures don't show is the appalling animation. Each enemy has maybe three or four frames of movement, jerking and spazzing across the screen like a break dancer with chest cramps. Every bad guy has an identical attack pattern - they walk directly towards you, and if you don't mash on the punch and kick buttons in time (or the appalling collision detection decides renders your best efforts useless), they'll hit you. As the aforementioned 'ninja clown', you face legions of tedious, poorly-realised stereotypes, including accordion-playing Elvises who say 'I'm gone!' when you kill them, in a vaguely American accent. You know, because Elvis famously said 'I'm gone!' didn't he? That was one of his famous catchphrases.

The music for the first level is punishingly unlistenable - that generic 'Bring On The Clowns' circus theme, rendered as a minor key reggae track. CND-medallion sporting hippies try to batter you with placards (in a two-frame animation), coming out with such hilarious hippy catchphrases as 'Hey dude!' and 'Woodstock, man!' Ah ha ha ha, I just lost a rib.

Having torn it from my chest cavity out of sheer despair.


The biggest disappointment of this game was discovering that the clown isn't a fucking ninja. He's just a clown who kicks people. 'Kicking' isn't ninjitsu. The makers cynically stuck the 'ninja' prefix in there because Turtlemania was still big and they thought they could just clamp onto its throat like some dark-bristled beetle and suck all the juicy goodness out of the last beautiful thing in this dirty, ugly, dirty world.

Well fuck you, creators of the Ninja Clowns coin op. I hope your children disowned you and all you've got left, some 18 years later, is your own steaming jobby of a video game for company.


This single screen is your only reward for completing the game. Yeah, keep driving you smug bastard. Drive your ludicrous noncemobile right into the fucking sun.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

The Performance Poet Interviews - #5: Nathan Jones


How did you get into performance poetry?

There were some important men in my life early on. Mainly Ginsberg, then Gershwin lyrics, then the terrible Thomases (Dylan and R.S)… and Eliot! Where am I going with this?

Through certain half deserted streets, probably. So anyway reading Eliot really gave me a kick up the arse – the time when we were taught Prufrock by Matt Jordan in John Moores University, and he was giving up fags and marching up and down the room going DO I DARE! And DO I DARE! That was a big turning point, when I started to find a voice that wasn't 'beat'.

Anyway, I was writing poems about the drinking booze in the neon city and suchlike all the way through university. But they didn't give us much idea about what you actually do with poems once you've written them, aside from the fact that you send them to poetry periodicals. I didn't really see why you would want to do that. So after university I started writing kind of Odes for Mercy magazine, which seemed to be the only real outlet that wasn't just for other poets, and I had a pseudonym so I felt I didn't have to be all lofty or serious. My first Odes were for The Grapes, a pub that wound up being called the Sick Lizard for a while, which I lived in sitting at the bar and eventually we drank all the liquor, paying for it by standing behind the bar and pouring it for ourselves, and I remember that every afternoon we would have to go to the off-licence and buy more cans of beer – ostensibly to sell, but seeing as there was no heating or running water in there you couldn't blame anyone for not coming in and eventually we drank the cans of beer and went to sleep on the seats there. It was like being the barman out of Quantum Leap, in a way. Then the pub went out of business for some reason and I had to go up the road. They were dreadful times, and the poem reflected that with a certain amount of pathos I think. And it wasn't about Me, so you could call that a bit of a watershed. That should be in those top tips you were going through. Don't write about yourself all the time. It's boring.

So eventually I got round to producing stuff quite regularly, most of it about myself, and I bought a tweed suit that in retrospect made me look like Compo out of Last Of The Summer Wine, and I started reading my poems out then. Selfish, not funny poems with no shouting or music. Roll up in one hand, whiskey in the other.

Then I started working in a café at FACT and Ross Sutherland came in. Your friend and mine. I was going bald, although now I have a fine head/face of hair. Then we started Fiction @ FACT, poetry events with tunes and drinking and that. I definitely had in mind the sort of 'happening' vibe that you associate with the first readings of Ginsberg's Howl poem, which I still think was the last poem to actually change the world. And anyway I would perform there every month and see Ross perform his stuff which was much better than mine and every month I would try to top him by doing a pastiche of a different 'school' of writing… surrealism and imagism and that… Once a keyboard player fell off the back of the stage. That was great. And Nick wore a colander. And Ross would carry on being better than everyone just being himself and getting all the girls. And then I developed a faux-welsh accent, which worked kind of like the pseudonym, I guess. Then I was a performance poet for a while, because I had a poem called 'Too Hot For Love', which people could remember afterwards. Catchphrases are good. Refrains, so people know what you're on about even if they have started thinking about their mole for a minute. And a silly accent.

Although I've always thought that my links aren't really good enough for me to call myself a performance poet.

So yes, I blame it on Ross Sutherland. Great poet, great performer, bad gait. Awful gait. And all the Fiction poets really, Nick Holloway, Dave Bamford, Olly Grunner, and now you and Joe and the two Lukes [Kennard and Wright], who push you and make you feel part of something. Nick ran a performance night too, called Someone Is Watching, which in a way was a spooky premonition of our current nights Wave If You're Really There, perhaps we are religious poets! Anyway, yes, Nick's nights were every Sunday so that was a regular thing you had to write for too. That was a good way to learn, and 'be'.



How would you describe your work?


Sometimes it is lengthy and discursive, sort of bouncy and friendly, like someone who is having an excellent conversation with a good friend not letting them get a word in edgeways and really trying to get to the bottom of a subject I suppose. Although that is just my lastest poem.

Visceral realism, I do. Or what I would call visceral anyway, with some real raw feeling thrown in for good measure. 'Shit, I'm angry.' Or 'He was angry and sad. What is sadness anyway...' A poem by me might start. And it would probably end 'Washing chips up in a tree'.

Nina wrote that actually, skitting one of Ross's automatic poems. It's good isn't it? She writes songs too: www.myspace.com/ninajonesmusic. My poems are actually usually remarkably similar to whoever I'm reading at the time, but with more Me in them, and a bit of Nina.

Do you think there's a difference between 'page' and 'performance' poetry? If so, what?

I suppose performance poetry is funny. That's almost a guarantee, that if it isn't funny at all then it is a flop. Like all rules, this is a pretty rubbish one. Forget it. And you can take your idea of the fact that they have to be three minutes long, or even under five and shove it up your arse too. David Jay is the best performance poet I've ever seen, and he isn't really funny and he goes on for yonks. So there you go! Or do you?

I don't know. I suppose we all like to think that people will enjoy our poems written down, but actually we know that no-one would really actually ever read them. What are they going to do? Buy a book of poems and then read it?

I doubt it, Tim. At least not with the intensity and in the numbers you can achieve with performance. If you want people to know your poetry, you have to go out and read it to them, and then I think that out of this comes all the stylistic and quirky and dynamic things that are basically to do with audience development. You learn to work with crowds so that they will like you/your poems more and maybe more people will come and listen harder next time. And maybe one day someone will say 'I liked this bit' instead of asking you how you remembered the whole thing. No-one ever knows what to say to you after you have just been on stage, especially if you are still learning.

I am saying 'you' 'you' all the time here, but I mean 'me', 'I'. It has been fucking painful, sitting there and watching Ross take all the girls to his bedroom one by one.


But then I have a feeling that people like David Jay, and to a certain extent you, have performance as a medium in itself. That probably makes for a more satisfying experience. And where do people who are good and don't perform fit into my theory? Like, erm, Seamus Heaney.

What about this: the difference is the generosity of performed poetry – when it's good, it seems like such a generous thing to do for people, but when it's poo the poet just looks selfish. It's a generous risk to take, in itself. But sometimes you wish you hadn't bothered, and at those times everyone else wishes you hadn't too. Whereas page poetry is just quite good or brilliant, or it doesn't even exist.

As long as I am still allowed to think of myself as a direct artistic descendent of T.S. Eliot, I don't care.

Why should someone come to a performance poetry gig?


It's only a fiver, and we have music on too.

What do you think your best poem is, and why?

The Bell. It is nice and long and gathers in intensity. And it rhymes, so it has this quality that makes it seem like it existed before I wrote it. I have a link here to when I performed it in Tate with a load of artists, and Wave Machines…

http://liverpoolstories.blogspot.com/2008/12/mercyliverpool-tate.html

I also love this one because it is the first one I wrote specifically for a performance with Wave Machines.

If you could nick one other person's poem and claim it as your own, which poem would it be, and why?

Kenneth Koch, 'The Art Of Love'. He is so confident and human at this point in his career, and there is none of the pretension of poetry holding him back, although poetry is the perfect way to describe what he's doing. And it's nice and long so you can settle into it. And it's funny and clever and tall and everything that you want in a man.

What typifies bad performance poetry to you?

'Middle Class Girls'.

No! I'm joking. I love that one.

Basically, it's bad if it's not funny, and with nothing to replace that humour. I'm not usually funny, but when I'm not being funny you can be sure that I'll do a big shouty shouty bit with the stary eyes pretty soon. Even then it can be really bad. You can't get away with just doing a shouty shouty when there are only about four people watching you – although I have tried. My girlfriend nearly stopped loving me that night.

Like I said, you can tell bad performance poetry when there is no generosity in it. That's not something that you can add in to a performance, like you can add it into hosting, where you just have to remember to give people things – it just comes from the work and performance being good. As an audience member you think, Thanks very much for that. There are lots of variables though.

Actually. Maybe that is it. Me and Ross used to talk about 'giving' people stuff as a performer. Bad performance poetry just doesn't give you anything. Open Mic nights are generally a bad idea to go to, unless you want to try new material.

And I HATE it when people swap words about in a sentence just so the rhyme lands on the end of the line. It's not 'To the shop I was walking' you div! And nothing good ever came from rhyming with walking anyway, what are you going to say, 'And to my fingers I was talking'?

What do you think of the state of the UK performance poetry scene at the moment? Is it okay to talk about a 'scene', or is that a bit unhelpful?

I don't know. Ask Ross. Ask Roddy Lumsden. He will know, but he might not tell you. He is the best poet, I think, and he seems to act like a bit of a dad to everyone else, even though he's not old enough to be your dad.

Tell us about a particularly memorable reaction you've had to your work.

A little girl came up after a recent performance and asked for my autograph. I nearly cried. It was this performance:

http://shootoutproject.blogspot.com/2008/06/013-lived-to-learn-language-nathan.html

Must have been the braces.

Actually, I think that was the only time I have not gone off and gotten completely leathered after being on stage, because it was in the afternoon. So it is the most memorable reaction by default more than anything else. Maybe there have been some really great anecdotal reactions I've had, but I can't remember any of them. I can do this, because I really perform quite rarely. You guys would probably turn all yellow if you got drunk after every single gig.

I'm not sure if you would count this as a "reaction to my work", but it might be a good opportunity to state some cold hard facts:

Ross once had everyone at a packed stage at Latitude call me a cunt, because I had fallen asleep in a ditch instead of taking to the stage after Patti Smith. Patti Smith was supporting ME. In a way. Anyway, that actually was potentially the biggest moment of my whole writerly career, and I spooned it. I was asleep in a ditch. Okay? Apologies to everyone involved in that particular booboo, except Salena Godden.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Press Shots

Who's this ludicrous pillock? I hear you bleat. Well, c'est moi.

I know. Reason insists I chose my wardrobe while distracted by hideous grief. What can I say? I'm a maverick.


Pics by Katie Utting: kattie_utting@yahoo.com

Preparations for the Open Mic campaign continue at considerable pace. Get in touch if you've got any open mic nights to recommend!

Monday, 16 March 2009

Professor Weetos


Sitting alone in my Cambridge flat, guzzling cans of discount energy drink Relentless and eating bowl upon bowl of Coco Pops, I got to thinking about cereal mascots, and the tragic life of (now sadly defunct) Professor Weetos, a scientific genius who squanders his knowledge by only working on inventions that relate to Weetos.

[SCENE - A TYPICAL SUBURBAN KITCHEN]

BERYL is a 50-something housewife. She looks thin and drawn. She sits at the table, worriedly reading a letter.

[SFX - EXPLOSION]

PROFESSOR WEETOS dashes into the room. He is balding, his remaining hair is white, and he wears a pair of spectacles apparently constructed from two large Weetos. He wears a white lab coat, the corner of which appears to be smouldering.

PROFESSOR WEETOS: It's incredible, I tell you! Fab-tab-u-lumptious! Impossi-licious!

He spots his smouldering lab coat with a start.

Ooh!

He blows on it until it goes out.

I thought it couldn't be done! I thought it was a just a stupendous dream!

BERYL: Gordon, please...

PROFESSOR WEETOS: [slamming his palms down on the table] My dear, my dear, my dear! Do you know what I've discovered?

BERYL: You need to read th-

PROFESSOR WEETOS: I've found a way to make Weetos 200% more chocolicious! Hee hee!

BERYL: [putting her head in her hands] Oh God.

PROFESSOR WEETOS: I know! I know! Weetos are already the most chocolicious cereal in the entire galaxy, but now there's even more chocolatey flavour in every single one! Hee hee!

He begins to dance around the kitchen.

Breakfast times have never been so chocolatey!

BERYL: Gordon, you've got to stop this.

PROFESSOR WEETOS: I can't stop! Weetos aren't nearly crunchtastic enough! Ho ho! I just need a few more months to perfect my Crunch-o-tron and-

BERYL: [yelling] They're cutting your funding!

PROFESSOR WEETOS freezes mid-jig.


[more quietly] They're cutting your funding. This is a letter from the university. It's been lying on your desk for two bloody weeks and you haven't opened it. They say: [reading from the letter] 'after six consecutive semesters without heading a seminar or lecture... blah blah blah... and your reluctance to share in bona fide peer-reviewed publications your research into commercial wheat additives... etc, etc... it is with considerable reluctance that I have decided to discontinue your grant payments and terminate your contract with the university. [beat] On a personal note, I realise how difficult things have been for you since Gregory's passing. I thought that by allowing you to work from home while you grieved for your son, I was doing you a kindness. Now I realise my decision only isolated you in your sorrow. Please forgive me, Gordon. I have let you down.'

PROFESSOR WEETOS stands with one hand flat against the wall, his head down, his eyes closed. BERYL puts down the letter.

Gordon. Oh my dear love. Your mind... it's been turning in circles. It's okay now. You can let go.

His hand slides down the pale wall, leaving a brown smear.


PROFESSOR WEETOS: Yes... [lifting his head] Yes. That's it. What on earth have I been thinking all this time? [he smiles at his wife] How have I been so foolish? Turning in circles... it's so obvious now.

BERYL: Oh Gordon, thank G-

PROFESSOR WEETOS: Circles! By golly that's it! Circles! [clapping his hands] Ha ha! I need to make Weetos wheely scrumptious! Hooper-duper! There's not a moment to lose!

He hurries past BERYL, planting a kiss on her head.

I must invent a gizmo that puts even rounder holes in Weetos! To the lab! Wheeee!

PROFESSOR WEETOS exits the kitchen. BERYL lowers her head, and begins to sob.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Video Games: A Cultural History - A History

So yes, I do a bit of moonlighting on another blog, Mercy Recommends. For a whole bunch of weeks now, I've been posting a regular feature every weekend, one which I call: 'Video Games: A Cultural History'.

The tone oscillates between irritatingly flippant and a kind of Simon Schama esque middlebrow patrician didacticism, and I expect it will continue to not know what it really is up until the day Mercy tell me to push off or I run out of steam. But anyway, in case you'd like to pick through the tatty stitchwork of my musings, I thought I'd post some links to what I've done so far. Hey, you could even read the rest of the blog. Who knows, it may save your life one day!

#1 - Wonderboy In Monster Land

#2 - Wonderboy Solves The Riddle Of The Sphinx
#3 - Choice And Identity In Blue's Journey
#4 - Japan's Construction Boom In Hammerin' Harry
#5 - Fear Of The Other In Bad Dudes Vs Dragon Ninja
#6 - The Spectre Of Socialism In Strider

Friday, 13 March 2009

Choose Your Own Adventure

Following on from yesterday's post about MS Paint Adventures, I thought I'd point you in the direction of some funbox online adventure games.

If you head to the 'Games' section of the Homestar Runner website, you can play a whole bunch o' affectionate parodies that are actually pretty sweet games in their own right.

The closest to MS Paint Adventure's 'Problem Sleuth' is 'Dangeresque - Roomisode 1: Behind The Dangerdesque'. Problem Sleuth creator Andrew Hussie is an avowed fan of Homestar Runner, and the two share a lot of influences.


Here, you play hard-boiled detective Dangeresque (played by regular Homestar Runner character, Strong Bad, a brash luchador who's always cooking up mischief), who has to try to solve a case without leaving his office. It's a fun little mystery, with the usual pleasures and surprises of the point n' click system, and it reminds me of Sam & Max Hit The Road, which can only be a clamorously ringing endorsement.



Peasant's Quest
is a tidy little parody of the old Sierra game King's Quest. It uses a combination of controlling your character with the cursor keys and typing in verb commands to LOOK, GET, USE, etc:


Finally, for hardcore retrophiles, there's Thy Dungeonman, a spoof sword n' scorcery text adventure. Took me right back to my days playing Guild of Thieves on my Dad's green screen Amstrad, it did. He only had a pirate copy and the copy protection kicked in after a hundred moves, rendering it tantalisingly unplayable. I still found the diamond ring hidden inside the billiard ball, though.


There. Don't say I never give you anything. Or that my feet smell. Or that the holocaust never happened. Especially that my feet smell.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

MS Paint Adventures


So, a while back, the ever-awesome Metafilter put me onto this exchange, between gaming legend Tim Schafer - who worked on Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandago, amongst others - and joystiq.com. In it, Tim and his interviewers turn a simple email exchange into an adlibbed mini text adventure.

It's a lovely, rich format for collaborative storytelling. Joe Dunthorne tried his hand at something similar, adopting the old Choose Your Own Adventure 'forking paths' style with his middle-class adventure 'You Are Happy', which you can play on his website. He's performed it a few times as part of our show about video games and hiding from reality, Infinite Lives, getting audience members to choose what to do next. I've particularly enjoyed watching the supporting schtick develop - one thing a text adventure can't do is demand that the player provide an explanation for their choice of path.

All of which is a preamble to this. Hey. You should go read MS Paint Adventures. After an entire year of inputs, the latest adventure, Problem Sleuth, is finally complete. When I read the last few frames, I felt kind of choked up and elated all at once.


Basically, it's an interactive webcomic, presented in the style of the Sierra-style text adventure/point n' click hybrids, like King's Quest or Leisure Suit Larry. Readers post suggested commands on a blog - e.g. 'Examine phone', 'Open safe', 'Get key', etc - then writer and artist Andrew Hussie picks one to draw next and develop the story.

The eponymous Problem Sleuth starts off locked in his office, and the first order of business is working out how to escape. Like any great storyteller, Mr Hussie's awesome at subverting expectation. Here, someone suggests punching through the office door's glass window:


Only to discover that it's not glass, but a piece of paper with his initials written backwards on it:


Watching the dynamic between Andrew and his audience develop is fascinating. As their attempts to solve the puzzle grow more and more creative, so his tactics for frustrating their attempts become increasingly elaborate. The result is a wonderful - if tortuous - piece of collaborative improv, full of cool narrative flourishes that draw from a plethora of disparate cultural sources to make something weird and technicolour and awesome. I don't want to spoil it for you, but suffice to say that soon there are multiple player characters, a host of mighty allies and a nasty-ass monster horde to be defeated. You probably won't have the stamina to read it all in a single sitting (it is a year's worth of posts, after all), but you can Save and Load your progress from the buttons just beneath the pictures. Click each command to advance to the next frame.

Go on, go. Read it. Seriously. Go. I'll wait.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The Performance Poet Interviews - #4: Yanny Mac

Previously, we've heard from Dockers MC, Polarbear and Nathan Filer. This week, I spoke to gravelly-voiced raconteur Yanny Mac.


Yanny Mac has performed at Glastonbury, The Edinburgh Fringe, Latitude and the Port Eliot Lit Fest. He compered the Poetry Arena at Latitude in 2007, with his buddy Pikey Paddy, and until recently, they both hosted Norwich Birdcage’s 'Benefit Scams'.



An acrimonious split led to a minor nervous breakdown, and Yanny’s subsequent retirement to the Suffolk countryside, where he now writes self-help poetry for trainee Domestic Goddesses. Yanny draws inspiration from prescription anti-depressants, and the fact that his door-hinges are shinier than any of his contemporary poets. Yanny is married to Aussie chanteuse Sooz McKenzie-Close (Librarian Girls). Rob Da Bank thinks that Yanny’s name is funny.

How did you get into performance poetry?

I was Aisle16’s dealer. The early years were incredibly booze and drug-fuelled, whilst we were finding our own poetic voices, and I provided 'the band' with a fully-expensed company car AND the ability to get hold of class Bs & Cs. Luke Wright used to call me Super-Yans.

How would you describe your work?

'Complete'.

I’ve spent the past ten years developing performance-characters such as The Chav Poet and Domestic Goddess, but only really ever performed ranting monologues and a few issue-based poems. In that time, I’ve written over 200 page-poems, and this current period of enforced retirement is an opportunity to collate them into some sort of anthology. 'Suburban Myths & Misses' has been a work-in-progress for over a decade!

Do you think there's a difference between 'page' and 'performance' poetry? If so, what?

Yes. I think the answer’s obvious. You only have to go to a ‘poetry-reading’ at somewhere like Aldeburgh and then follow up with a set from Dockers MC at say, Latitude Festival, to see that they are completely differing art forms, done by similar people (i.e. poets!).

Why should someone come to a performance poetry gig?

Because they like performance poetry?? I dunno the answer to that one. It’s not a trick question is it?

What do you think your best poem is, and why?


Ah! The million-dollar question!I’ve written so many now, it’s hard to have a favourite.I certainly regret writing one or two! I’ve always been proud of 'Searchin For Me Chav Princess' because it was my first attempt at ‘going it alone’ having left Aisle16. I had so much to say about prejudice, inequity, class snobbery and Great Yarmouth, but was sick of hearing preachy performance poems. It got me noticed, and I received some special reviews on the telly and in the broadsheets.

I think the poems that most people remember are 'Once We Were Chavscum', 'Prince Of Wales Road' and 'I Was A Teenage New Romantic'. Punters love simplicity!

If you could nick one other person's poem and claim it as your own, which poem would it be, and why?

Luke Wright’s 'Ode To Cigarettes' was once stolen by a twat from Peterborough, and caused the Big Gay Face much consternation, so I’d probably nick that one and do a slightly better job of performing it, than the little MySpace plagiarist did! 'Stenhousemuir' by John Osborne still has the ability to make me cry & wee at the same time. Byron Vincent’s 'Bob' is pure genius!

What typifies bad performance poetry to you?


Angry little white boys in baggy jeans & beanies, using rap & grime-slang to communicate their middle class angst.

What do you think of the state of the UK performance poetry scene at the moment? Is it okay to talk about a 'scene', or is that a bit unhelpful?

Yeah. There is a scene, but it’s created by the arts media, not the poets themselves. It’s very busy. There’s a lot of talent out there, but there’s also a lot of bandwagon jumpers. Look at Scroobius Pip ffs!?!

Tell us about a particularly memorable reaction you've had to your work.

Had it not been pissing it down, the rapturous applause I received from nearly two thousand Glastonbury Cabaret Tent squatters, could be classed as memorable. I did however enjoy meeting Ralph Steadman at the first ever Port Eliot LitFest, and stealing from him the much used quote: 'They [Aisle16] do with words what I try to do with art.' At the time, I didn’t really know who he was!

As our token 'disabled poet' spokesperson, can you tell us a bit about how your disability has affected and/or informed your work as a poet?




Quite substantially really.

The fundamental reason for leaving Aisle16 was due to having increasingly more frequent flare-ups of my chronic disease (Psoriatic Arthritis), and therefore not being able to commit to being an integral part of a show, or going on tour. I felt that being my own boss, on my own terms, was preferential to constantly letting others down. A good lesson learnt.

I was inspired to learn that my TV lit hero Dennis Potter also suffered from psoriatic arthritis, which led to his characterisation of The Singing Detective. Debilitating disease leads one into a selfish desire to create art that serves as a living post-mortem & autopsy!

With your various stage personas, your taking on of zeitgeisty contemporary topics, and your Rolling Stones esque bimonthly cycle of retirement and comeback, you're something of a master when it comes to creating a buzz around yourself. Have you got any advice for aspiring performance poets on how to self-promote without being a wanker?

No. I always believed that I was that that self-seeking wanker! I’m rather disappointed to learn that I’m not.

And finally... got a good Yanny celeb anecdote you fancy sharing with us?


No anecdotes. Merely historical fact.

I once broke up a fight between the owner of the Pleasance Theatre and Simon Amstell. The latter was being chastised for flyering his new show, and I took the blame. In Aisle16’s first TV interview, Simon from Eastenders (Tiffany’s gay brother) suggested I replaced the then departing Beppe Di Marco. At the first ever Port Eliot LitFest, I went skinny-dipping with G.K Chesterton’s niece & the Earl of St.German’s god-daughter.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Open Mic

In an act of either laudable pecuniary acumen or savage recklessness, the Arts Council have elected to underwrite the beginning of my forthcoming project. If you take a peek at my Myspace page, you'll see I've already got a nice little run of gigs coming up in April and May.

But most of them aren't my usual cushy top-flight cash cows, oh no. I'm heading back to the performance trenches. I'm doing the open mic circuit.

Basically, I never did open mic nights. I was jammy. I had a bunch of friends who were already so thoroughly ensconced in performance scene that I was almost immediately able to leap into poorly remunerated gigs with my name on the bill and everything. And now, a few years later, gigging takes up enough of my time that I've finally admitted to myself that it's something I want to do. It's a job.

And as soon as I admitted that, it became a bit less fun. Suddenly, I got nervy. Shit, I thought, I've committed myself now. Is this what I want to do? Will I ever be able to afford to support myself? Why I am putting myself through this?

Anyway, look, I don't want to run the whole spiel about why this is a rich research premise and why it means a lot to me personally. It ends up sounding like wanky flier copy.

The fact is, I've seen the shittiest live performances of my life at poetry open mic nights. Sometimes spectacularly bad, but more often poor, dull, self-indulgent twaddle that merely bores rather than appalls. On the other hand, I really like people. Dreadful poets often prove to be great people. And I'm not just checking out poetry nights. In fact, thus far, most of the nights I've got booked are stand-up slots. I'm really looking forward to meeting the people involved in a scene I know next to nothing about (presumably while bombing repeatedly to audiences across the British Isles). I'm also going to be visiting music open mics, to meet open mic musicians.

I don't know what I'll find. I'm looking for stories, I guess. I want to meet interesting people, and find out why they perform, what they hope for, what they've done with themselves, and maybe, in amongst the gurning imbecile wordsmiths, tomorrow's zingy stand-ups, and the understated lyricists playing their plaintive ballads to an audience of ten, I'll work out why I ever wanted to stand in front of a room full of strangers and say: 'Look at me.'

If you know any good poetry, music, stand-up or 'other' open mic nights anywhere in the country (or world), please let me know. If I can, I'll visit them.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Continue? #5 - Final Fight

Here's Guy from Final Fight looking understandably displeased:



By inserting more money, you make a knife fall from the ceiling. Although it doesn't appear to sever the fuse or your bonds, Guy appears nonetheless delighted:

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Language Is Not A Game

As you may have picked up from my previous post, I just finished a mini-tour with Ross Sutherland and Joe Dunthorne called Found In Translation, about language games and our attempts to infiltrate experimental French literature group the Oulipo.

In the show, we pass it all off as frivolous japes, but in reality, experimenting with language is fraught with peril. Ross and Joe found me (thank God) the morning after my attempt to write a poem where the only vowel used was 'A'. Apparently I had suffered a massive acid reflux and regurgitated all the unused letters. I post the shocking photographs of the scene they discovered in the hope that, if you know someone who is showing signs of discovering the empowering joy of playing with language, you can show them some of the repugnant consequences and dissuade them before they fall into a life of poetry. If that fails, I am happy to forward scans of my bank statements for the last twelve months, which I'm sure will be enough to send even the most ardent of aspiring wordsmiths galloping off to start a degree in Accountancy.

[WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES FOLLOW]





Wednesday, 4 March 2009

The Performance Poet Interviews - #3: Nathan Filer

Last week, I talked to Polarbear, the week before it was Dockers MC. Today, it's the turn of Nathan Filer.


GOTH vs EMO from nathan filer on Vimeo.

How did you get into performance poetry?

Ten years ago I was living in Greece and working as an hotel entertainer. I was utterly useless. One holidaymaker helpfully described me as the most pathetic bingo caller he'd ever seen (and this was a man who had his own dabbers, so I'm guessing he'd seen a few).

Part of my job involved putting on a cabaret. Again, I was useless. But somewhere along the way I started to write and perform poems about ineffectual mosquito repellents, lost luggage and other such pressing topical issues. They went down a treat. I quit the job, and kept up the poetry.

How would you describe your work?

Comedic. I tend to tell stories with a fictional me at the centre of them. I like creating convoluted narratives with tangential asides, all leading to a punch-line type reveal. Oh, and I rhyme. For me, writing shifting and well executed rhyme schemes is a big part of the process.



Do you think there's a difference between 'page' and 'performance' poetry? If so, what?

Definitely. There are certainly poets (Ross Sutherland, Luke Wright, Rosy Carrick to name a few) who are able to blur those edges. But I am not one of them. Page poetry should look nice; mine looks like I've vomited bitter chunks of verbosity into my notebook, and let it congeal.

Why should someone come to a performance poetry gig?

They shouldn't. It's far better to get into sport. But one good thing about going to see performance poetry for the first time is that it will probably be less shit than you were expecting.

What do you think your best poem is, and why?

I'm really enjoying performing my newer material. It has more of a stand-up feel to it, with the focus on the overall narrative arc of the set, rather than individual poems.

But if I had to pick a single poem that I am most proud of it would probably be Oedipus. In 2005 I made it into a short film, which won tons of awards all around the world. It isn't my best piece of writing, but it definitely opened the most doors. Here is a link.

If you could nick one other person's poem and claim it as your own, which poem would it be, and why?

Ha. Who says I don't? Beowulf has done okay. Perhaps I'd claim that. Actually that would be a good choice because we don't know who wrote it. Perhaps it was me? It was long time ago, so I might have just forgotten.

Or maybe I should steal one of yours Timothy. I've always been rather envious of Middle Class Girls. Tell me, does your bruschetta taste better with feta or brie?

What typifies bad performance poetry to you?

It's fun to be asked all these questions. It makes me feel important. I'm going to close my eyes and imagine that you're Parky (... and I'm Rod Hull). Anyway, I'm not going to answer that one because I'm no expert and I'll just end up offending someone.

What do you think of the state of the UK performance poetry scene at the moment? Is it okay to talk about a 'scene', or is that a bit unhelpful?

I think it's okay to call it a scene. Unless you think that makes it sound exclusive, perhaps? But performance poetry is too accessible to be exclusive. All you have to do is write a poem and go to an open mic night. Hey presto, you are the scene!

Anyway, when I'm getting lots of gigs I consider the scene to be healthy. When I'm not I start mumbling discontentedly about glass ceilings and an imbalance of supply and demand. Basically I'm far too shrink wrapped in my own little world to be able to offer an objective appraisal. I'll go with... (flips mental coin)... it's all gone to shit. God help us.

Tell us about a particularly memorable reaction you've had to your work.

After gigs the same thing usually happens. Sweet people come up to me wishing to express their gratitude and say some nice words. Then we get chatting, and after about ten minutes they realise that the actual me is nowhere near as quick-witted, charming or sympathetic as the stage me. On departing, we all feel a bit dead inside.

But I have a better story. A couple of years ago I was on holiday in Berlin. I was heading back to my hostel on the U-Bahn at about 2am and a young German guy on the seats opposite looked at me and asked if I'd be making any more poetry films soon. It turns out he'd seen Oedipus there at a festival a few months before. It wasn't even fifteen minutes. But fuck me, did I feel famous!

In your sets it's often ambiguous where the preamble ends and the poem begins; you've also got sections where you drop out of the poem midway to extemporise, or where you reincorporate a refrain from an earlier piece - techniques that are fairly commonplace in stand-up but almost unheard of in performance poetry. They'll doubtless spread like buckshot through the work of everybody else on the scene, but for now, do you think of your work as experimental? Or is the scene at large just not very innovative?

On the contrary it is precisely because the scene is so innovative that I do it. There are so many unique and compelling voices lifting from the cacophony (Dockers MC, Scroobius Pip vs Dan Le Sac, Aisle16 et al) that it is no longer enough to just be funny or just be able to write a half decent rhyme. So I suppose what you've described is my attempt at a 'signature'.

And I have another motivation, to wit: I am a total audience whore!! It can't just be me who has suffered that horrendous sinking feeling of being stuck in a monumentally long poem, and the crowd just aren't feeling it, and there is nothing to do but stoically cough the thing out 'til completion, and swallow your shame. But if your audience don't know when the poetry has started, then how can they possibly know when to stop listening? Ba dum chhh.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

'Found' Univocalisms

As some of you may or may not care, I just finished a mini-tour of our show Found In Translation, the story of my, Ross Sutherland, and Joe Dunthorne's attempts to infiltrate the infamous French experimental literature group, the Oulipo, a group so radical and misunderstood that many people still don't believe us when we say they exist.

The Oulipo believed in placing restrictions on language to unlock one's true creativity. The central form we employed in our quest to gain entry was the univocalism - a word, phrase or piece of text that only contains one kind of vowel, e.g.:

A: Adam has a fat arm.
E: She shredded the letters every weekend.
I: Nikki's kissing this minging nitwit.
O: My voodoo doll only works on God.
U: Buddy tugs unlucky chumps' ruddy spuds.


Surely, we thought, if we each write a poem using this form, they'd accept us as one of their own.

You've guessed the end - we failed to join their ranks. But sod it, we picked up low-level psychosis on the way. Writing in just one vowel sends your mind's noise-to-signal ratio screwy. You start seeing patterns everywhere. Messages spring from every street sign. It becomes clear how an intelligent, creative person under a lot of stress might all too easily begin to think the universe was talking to him through shop hoardings and coffee machines.

Here's a selection of my poorly-snapped favesies:


This is my second favourite found univocalism, seeing as it's both a univocalism and a palindrome (a word that's the same spelled backwards or forwards):


But for sheer linguistic brio, you knew we were going to have to outsource to India:


If you spot any yourself when you're out and/or about, send them to me and I'll put them up on the blog. Gw'on!